What Southasia read in 2022
We asked some of Southasia's most astute writers, thinkers and intellectuals for their most notable and thought-provoking reads on the region from the past year. Here's what they had to say.
Dolly Kikon (Associate professor in the anthropology and development studies program at the University of Melbourne; author of Life and Dignity: Women's Testimonies of Sexual Violence in Dimapur (Nagaland), Experiences of Naga Women in Armed Conflict: Narratives from a Militarized Society, and more)
Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih. Westland Books (2021)
This novel combines the power of oral narrative and text. Weaving together myths, rituals and death, it brings the Khasi world alive, and its richness and complex indigenous world. What does it mean to love a place, the season, and dwell on memories of a land? 1024 pages long and weighing a kilogramme, the contents of this novel are delicious and nourishing for the soul, like a good plate of jadoh.
Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir by Farah Bashir. HarperCollins India (2021)
This book is about growing up in conflict-torn Kashmir, but it took me back to my childhood growing up in Nagaland. Farah is a powerful writer and her searing account of everyday militarisation and suffering is a universal story of militarised societies.
Mahmud Rahman (Writer and translator; author of Killing the Water: Stories and translator of the Bangladeshi author Mahmudul Haque's novel Black Ice)
All This Could Be Different: A Novel by Sarah Thankam Mathews. Viking (August 2022)
I have started life anew in several cities, and I was reminded of those transitions when I read this novel. Sneha, a young, queer Indian woman, left behind by her parents and forced to return to India, makes a new life in Milwaukee. She explores dating, sexuality and the wonder of love; embraces the complexities of close friendship with friends old and new; grapples with living by herself and a tyrannical apartment manager; wrestles with money and works at a dysfunctional modern-day office; sorts through family ties and painful history; and all the way along, contemplates ideas of radical possibility. This was a delicious read, where the novel's language swept me along in beauty.
Saranarthir Dinlipi (Diary of a Refugee) by Kanai Lal Chakraborty. The Royal Publishers, Dhaka (February 2013)
The author was not politically active, but in 1971, because they were Hindus, he and his family were forced to flee Chittagong and live in refugee camps in India in 1971. He took time during his ordeals to jot down some notes. Two sons died in his arms. A painful read with day-to-day details of surviving in camps: dealing with thirst, hunger, illness and by-the-book bureaucrats. I was a refugee too, but lucky to stay with relatives in Calcutta. Among other political refugees around me, some were okay, and some had it hard. But there was a huge gulf between what we went through and the lives of those in the camps.
Me Me Khant (Poet and activist; executive director and co-founder of Students for Free Burma)
I Am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond. Edited and introduced by James Byrne and Shehzar Doja. ARC Publications (August 2019)
This is a poetry collection that came out of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. It stands witness to the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military and to the international community's complicity and inaction. Meanwhile, it allows Rohingya poets to reclaim power through narrative. It declares to the world that being a Rohingya involves going beyond the news headlines about genocide, it's also about showcasing poetry, brilliance and hope.
Ari Gautier (French-language writer and poet of Indo-Malagasy origin; author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi, The Thinnai and most recently, Nocturne Pondichéry)
The Body by the Shore by Tabish Khair. Interlink Books (June 2022).
The body by the shore is the latest novel by the acclaimed writer Tabish Khair. He is one of those rare writers who gets bored writing in the same genre. In this book, the author explores, in the near future, a mystery thriller with science-fiction components. Setting the story in Aarhus, the city where he lives, Tabish Khair confronts us with the ignominy of our society. Through evils such as capitalism, racism, immigration, climate change and organ trafficking, Tabish Khair denounces a harsh but vulnerable system. This book of great clairvoyance makes us aware of the critical time in which we live. A must-read book.
Saira Ansari (Independent writer and researcher; editor of Bani Abidi: The Artist Who)
Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan by Usman T Malik. Kitab, Karachi (2021)
Midnight Doorways by Usman T Malik brings together seven dark, strange and beautiful stories set in Pakistan. Mixing local lore with horror, gore, desi futurism and fantasy themes, Malik creates new characters and avatars that linger long after the stories have ended. Perhaps it is the familiarity that is haunting – I know that street corner, that rooftop, that tree, that face.
Midnight Doorways includes black-and-white illustrations made by nine Pakistani artists and designers, commissioned especially for the stories. No stranger to supporting local talent, Malik is also the co-founder of the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. I picked up this volume because it included The Wandering City, a short story by Malik that I had read previously and loved (hence making it a litmus test of sorts): I wasn't disappointed. While I still have my anachronistic post-Cold-War American/European sci-fi and fantasy favourites, Malik writes stories I wish I had found when I first went looking in the 1990s.
Modernism/Murderism: The Modern Art Debate in Kumar by Jyoti Bhatt, Pherozeshah Rustomji Mehta and the readers of Kumar. Translated by Vasvi Oza. Reliable Copy, Bangalore (2022)
In a sense, Modernism/Murderism is a time-travelling logbook of people arguing about good and bad art, interspersed with poetry and scribbled drawings. And none of it is made up. The book is a compilation of an amusing but highly informative debate between the writer Pherozeshah Rustomji Mehta (Karachi) and the artist Jyoti Bhatt (Baroda). Through letters published from 1959 to 1964, Mehta and Bhatt battled over the merits and deficiencies of Modern Art and what it meant for the artists of India.
The volume is richly illustrated with different covers of the Gujarati literary magazine Kumar, as well as an assortment of reproductions, photographs and diagrams. The inclusion of reader's letters, written in response to these essays, lends a unique view of the perception and sentiment of the audience of that time. An enjoyable and unique project, it was driven by the indie publishers Reliable Copy and researcher the Vasvi Oza who translated the texts from Gujarati to English (and peppered them with a lot of insightful notes about original context and meaning).
Niranjan Kunwar (Writer and educator based in Kathmandu; author of Between Queens and the Cities)
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Second edition, Penguin Classics (September 2008)
A familiar title popularised by Western trekkers ambling through Kathmandu's tourist district, I'd assumed this book was merely meant for mountaineers or wildlife explorers. But Mathiessen's acclaimed account of his two-month journey to the remote inner-Dolpo region of Nepal is not merely an adventure story but also a sincere description of the writer's spiritual struggles.
Shoon Naing (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior correspondent)
Wen Cheng (The Lost City) by Yu Hua. Burmese translation published by Nectar Literature (August 2022)
Last year was a busy year for me as a journalist reporting on Myanmar. While writing all those facts and stories, I got to read this unconventional romance. The book is called Wen Cheng, written by a well-known Chinese contemporary writer, Yu Hua. It describes the breathtaking journey of a man named Lin Xiangfu, along with his daughter, who looks for his missing wife Xiao Mei. This book kept my thoughts from my day-to-day news stories of human-rights violations in Myanmar and provided me with some rest.
Anupam Debashis Roy (Independent writer, journalist and political activist based in Dhaka; author of Not All Springs End Winter)
More Than Meets The Eye: Essays on Bangladeshi Politics by Ali Riaz. The University Press Limited (March 2022)
This book covers various aspects of Bangladeshi politics, including the emergence and collapse of Bangladeshi political settlements, low cohesion in Bangladeshi society, radicalisation, narratives of secularism and Islam, the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship and killings on the India-Bangladesh border. The book is interesting and provides a novel lens for readers to access the inner workings of Bangladeshi politics and civil society. Anyone who reads this book will gain unique insights into the transformation of Bangladeshi politics over the years, as well as crucial international topics concerning Bangladesh.
First Person by Rituparno Ghosh. Dey's Publishing (January 2012)
Written by the acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, First Person is a collection of articles in Bangla, originally written for a newspaper. The essays are personal in nature and cover diverse topics ranging from politics and filmmaking to personal memories. Ghosh covers various topics in the ongoing politics of West Bengal. His recounting of personal memories and his journey as a filmmaker also provides a fresh outlook on the ideas of an extraordinary man who has contributed so much to the Bengali psyche and culture.
Deshan Tennekoon (Sri Lanka-based writer, book designer and lapsed photographer)
Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire by Sujit Sivasundaram. William Collins (August 2020)
I'll start with a disclaimer: I'm only halfway through this excellent book. In Waves Across the South, Sivasundaram views colonialism from the perspective of Indian and Pacific Ocean cultures, and the results are enriching. By telling the stories of colonialism from the points of view of those colonised, he weaves together disparate cultures and asks us to rethink much of what we know of the Age of Revolutions.
Tsering Woeser (Tibetan writer, activist, blogger, poet, and essayist; author of Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution)
Indo-Tibetica, volumes 1 to 4 by Giuseppe Tucci. Chinese edition (2019)
I read the e-books of these volumes in Beijing in February last year and the paper books in Lhasa in September. However, due to pandemic restrictions, my mother's passing away due to illness, and the lockdown in Lhasa, I have not finished reading it until recently. For me, this set of books is powerfully healing and encouraging. For example, it comments on the great Tibetan translator, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo: 'Looking back on Rinchen Zangpo's life, travels and career, we seem to re-experience the spiritual atmosphere and the moment in history he lived in.' The restless sentient beings in this dharma-ending age need real devotion, enthusiasm and actions without fear of suffering in order to survive an impermanent and meaningless life.
However, one day in September 2021, when I stood in front of the retreat room of the great translator at the Tuolin Temple, I was shocked to see that out of the three storeys that Tucci witnessed, only the outer door and the first floor remained. This is a remnant of the Cultural Revolution that silently reveals the scale of its destruction.
The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda. Chinese edition (December 1999)
When Lama Govinda and his spouse Li Gotami Govinda went to Ngari in western Tibet in 1948, they visited the holy mountain Kailash and the holy lake Manasarovar, went to many ancient temples, documenting murals and Buddha statues along the way.
I actually read this book a long time ago, and re-reading it coincides with my experience of the pilgrimage to Kailash in September 2021. At that time, for unknown reasons, Tibetans from all over the world were able to obtain a short-term permit: they were allowed to worship Kailash and other holy places within one month. I travelled to the holy mountain, walked with many people and returned to the grand pilgrimage that had not been interrupted for thousands of years.
Govinda said the book was a report on a pilgrimage and he presciently noted: '…we may be the last people to come here to visit and document these complete works of art, and one day, our copies and photos will be the only thing left of them.' In fact, the ruins and remnants I witnessed in many monasteries such as Kejia Monastery and Tuolin Monastery in western Tibet were all destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who claimed to be the 'liberator'. The revolutions that have come one after another are not only witnesses of catastrophe, but also heartbreaking. For me and many more Tibetans, what Lama Govinda recorded is a lost paradise belonging to Tibet.
Seelai Karzai (Poet, cultural organiser and refugee advocate; member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association)
Customs: Poems by Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf Press (March 2022)
By turns wily and sombre, Customs by Solmaz Sharif scrutinises the idea of customs, the surveillance process at international ports of entry that determines whether an individual traveling from country is allowed to enter another country. Here, that country is America, which boasts a labyrinthine, racist mess of forms and rules for visitors and asylum seekers; rules which, if broken, carry severe consequences. The customs process – and the crossing of any border – can be hostile, and Sharif holds up a mirror to the humiliations found in this space, makes a mockery of them, as well as peers into the cleaving of families, longing and exile caused by such borders.
Maumil Mehraj (Researcher working on material memory and its archival, protest and peace-building concerns)
Life in The Clock Tower Valley by Shakoor Rather. (2021)
For anyone wanting to look at how the Kashmir conflict affects people, Life in The Clock Tower Valley is a good place to start. Through the narratives of several characters, all of whom find resonance with one person or the other in Kashmir, the book brings an unfiltered, raw, image of how Kashmiris live despite the conflict. It traces concerns that although exacerbated and contextualised by the conflict, are universal in nature. Rather writes that "[Kashmir's] aura could now only be recalled but certainly not re-created", but he has managed to do just that.
Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory by Aanchal Malhotra. Harper Collins (August 2017)
One of the foremost scholars of material memory, Malhotra analyses objects that refugees brought with them across the border at the time of the Indian Subcontinent's Partition. These items serve as tangible reaffirmations of memory and speak to the emotional and temporal significance of objects that would otherwise go unnoticed. The materials now serve as living testimonies of the refugees' struggles and change the way we look at history and the process of historiography. Reading this book makes one question the intentions of history as monolithic events, and bring it back to common people and their lived experiences.
1971: A People's History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by Anam Zakaria. Penguin Random House India (November 2021)
Zakaria, within her quintessentially sensitive and nuanced writing style, navigates what 1971 meant to the three stakeholder states of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, while also investigating the institutionalisation of the memory of that year's war. 1971 is differently remembered (and not remembered) based on where you are. Zakaria interrogates these questions through intergenerational interviews, assessments of textbooks, trips to schools and museums and locations honouring the events of 1971. The book is rightly titled because it is a "people's" history that questions conventional historiography of how a war is experienced and remembered.
V V Ganeshananthan (Fiction writer, essayist and journalist; author of the novels Brotherless Night and Love Marriage)
The Immortal King Rao: A Novel by Vauhini Vara. W W Norton & Company (May 2022)
I first heard the author read from this book as a work in progress, and couldn't wait to get my hands on it when it came out. A man's daughter contends with the meaning of his life – his rise from the child of Dalit coconut farmers to a tech titan and world leader. This book touches on so much – capitalism, corporatisation, technology, caste and more – with a vital, deeply imaginative, and extraordinarily beautiful story that helped me to think about what the future might look like.
Ammar Ali Jan (Historian and member of the Haqooq Khalq Party in Pakistan; author of Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan)
Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age by Shruti Kapila. Princeton University Press (November 2021)
Political theory is plagued by anachronistic and superfluous comparisons between European ideas and their "inadequate" implementation in the non-European world. Shruti Kapila's book is a welcome break from such tired Euro-centric tropes as it reconstructs political theory by examining the works of six major figures from colonial India. By engaging with questions of sovereignty, religion, caste, violence and democracy, these thinkers reconceptualised political theory by embedding them in the peculiarities of colonial India. In the process, Kapila demonstrates that rather than being condemned to mimicking Europe, India became a site for the production of bold new ideas that transformed modern politics.
The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. Pluto Press (April 2022)
In his book, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar examines the ways in which Pakistan's ruling classes maintain their grip on power despite economic instability and climate catastrophe. While the working classes are controlled through the use of brute force and violent dispossessions, the middle classes are disciplined by promising them participation in processes of capitalist accumulation. The author shows how such cynical use of fear and desire, fuelled by right-wing social media campaigns, prevents an alliance between marginalised groups while elites maintain their domination in the social, political and economic spheres. The book also engages in a detailed discussion on the obstacles and possibilities of a credible left-wing alternative in the country.